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Jack Hawkins was born at Lyndhurst Road, Wood Green, Middlesex, the son of master builder Thomas George Hawkins and his wife, Phoebe née Goodman. The youngest of four children in a close-knit family, Jack was educated at Trinity County School, Wood Green, where he joined his school choir at the age of eight; two years later he sang in the local operatic society's Patience by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Hawkins attended stage school in London, the Italia Conti Academy, which led to his London stage debut in Where the Rainbow Ends at the Holborn Empire on 26 December 1923, a production that also included the young Noël Coward. Hawkins made his New York stage debut on Broadway by 22 March 1929 as Second Lieutenant Hibbert in R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End, by the age of 18.
As early as 1933, the drama critic of the Evening News called him ‘the most indubitable of matinée idols’ and predicted that he might outstrip talented contemporaries such as Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, and in the pre-war years Hawkins often worked with the latter. The high point of this collaboration was Gielgud's staging, in the period of the Phoney War, of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest in which Hawkins scintillated in the role of Algernon Moncrieff.
After the fall of France in 1940, Hawkins volunteered for service with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was posted to India where he was put in charge of troop entertainment and, by July 1944, he was a colonel commanding the administration of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) for India and Southeast Asia.
Although he had appeared in several films during the 1930s, it was only after World War II that he began to build a successful career in the cinema; he signed a three-year film contract with Alexander Korda and later switched to Rank, ceasing to appear on the stage after 1951. He often played stern but sympathetic authority figures in films like Angels One Five, The Cruel Sea, the film that made him a star, and The Long Arm.
From the late 1950s, he mostly appeared in character roles, often in epic films like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia (playing General Edmund Allenby), Lord Jim and Oh! What a Lovely War. For The Bridge on the River Kwai, he had to persuade good friend Alec Guinness to take the lead role, which would ultimately win Guinness an Oscar.
Some of Hawkins more unusual roles included an Egyptian Pharaoh in Land of the Pharaohs, Ben Hur's adoptive Roman father Quintus Arrius in Ben-Hur, and Zulu, where he played against type as the fanatical coward, Reverend Otto Witt.
In reality Hawkins was politically liberal, and an emotional man, in sharp contrast to his conservative screen image. One of his favourite films, The League of Gentlemen, was considered quite groundbreaking for its time in its references to sex. However, though initially sought for the role of a gay barrister in Victim, he turned it down fearing that it might conflict with his masculine image. The role was eventually played by Dirk Bogarde.
A three-pack-a-day smoker, Hawkins began experiencing voice problems in the late 1950s; unknown to the public he had undergone cobalt treatment in 1959 for what was then described as a secondary condition of the larynx, but which was probably cancer. In private, he used a mechanical larynx to aid his speech. In December 1965, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. His entire larynx was removed in January of the following year; thereafter his performances were dubbed, often (with Hawkins's approval) by Robert Rietti or actor Charles Gray.
Following an unsuccessful operation to fit him with an artificial voice box, he died at St Stephen's Hospital, Fulham Road, London, on 18 July 1973: he was 62. His final appearance was in the television miniseries QB VII. His autobiography, Anything For a Quiet Life, was published after his death. He was cremated and interred at the Golders Green Crematorium.
Hawkins was married twice: from 22 October 1932 until 1940 to the actress Jessica Tandy (1909–1994), with whom he had a daughter, Susan; and from 31 October 1947 until his death to Doreen Mary Atkinson (née Beadle), with whom he had a daughter, Caroline and two sons, Nick and Andrew.